Sunday, July 9, 2017

Smoke and Crowns

Opium is one of the world’s oldest drugs. A Sumerian script details the joys of taking opium 5,400 years ago. It was used as a medicine and sedative by a variety of cultures. In the age of exploration, opium and tobacco were combined and smoked recreationally.

In the early 1800s, in a campaign to circumvent Chinese trading regulations, the British East India Company began selling opium grown in India to independent traders for silver. The opium then reached the Chinese coasts through middlemen and was sold through local dealers in China.

The aggressive marketing of the British led to recreational opium usage spreading wildly in China. There were discussions of legalizing and taxing opium, but in 1839 the emperor banned narcotics and closed the port of Canton. About 2.6 million pounds of opium were confiscated without reimbursement. But the country was already suffering epidemic addiction. By 1900, an estimated quarter of adult men in China were addicted.

St. Mark Ji Tianxiang was born in 1834 in China. Raised a Christian, he served his community as a doctor who served the poor. He got sick and treated himself with opium, soon becoming addicted.

Orthodox martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion
As he battled his addiction, he continually went to confession. Since addiction was not well understood at the time, the priest thought Tianxiang’s continued opium use was a sign of insincere repentance. Tianxiang was told to stop coming to confession unless he was clean (and thus truly repentant).

He couldn’t stay sober, but he still knew and desired God’s love. He continued to go to church, even as he was denied the sacraments. He kept going for thirty years. He prayed for martyrdom, figuring that was the only way he could be saved.

In 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion, Tianxiang was rounded up with several other Christians. He refused to deny God, even under threat and torture. He asked his executioners to kill him last so that no member of his family would have to die alone. He watched nine members of his family die before being beheaded himself. He was canonized along with his fellow Boxer Rebellion martyrs. Their feast day is July 9.

There presently is an opioid epidemic in this country. 80% of the global opioid production is consumed in the U.S. Most people addicted didn’t chose opioids. It’s not a party drug. Many were given a prescription for a valid reason. Morphine was a revelation in a time when medical procedures offered no pain relief. Heroin hit the scene as the “hero,” a pain killer not addictive like morphine. Percocet, OxyContin, Oxycodone, Fentanyl (which 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine): each promised all the good feelings in a newer, healthier way, but the addiction came too.

Addicts are seen as criminals, unproductive leeches on society, who waste charity on drugs, who abandon their families, who commit crimes and then demand handouts and methadone and rehab centers. And a lot of that is true. It’s hard to be addicted and productive. And poor decisions abound. But they are still people, people going through a really rough reality, and they deserve to be met and helped as individuals rather than written off as a whole.

What’s most inspiring about St. Mark Ji Tianxiang’s faith is that he didn’t give up, even when the Church gave up on him. So many people leave the faith when people in the church abuse, insult, or ignore them. And that’s understandable; it’s hard to return to a place with such negativity. But Tianxiang seemed to understand that the truth was more powerful than its gatekeepers. He loved God, even when his priest didn’t believe in him or when he was denied the sacraments. He kept showing up. That’s 30 years of loyalty and love that prepared him for his moment of martyrdom.

I worry about the current crisis. There are no easy solutions. And there will always been new drugs and new people becoming addicted. As long as there is suffering, there will be addiction as people try to escape the pain the world can cause. But I am hopeful that there are success stories out there, that there are those who break the habit and sober up and lead productive lives again. I’m hopeful that there are people who are compassionate and willing to help the suffering without indulging their usage. I’m hopeful that even in times of despair and battles and isolation, people can still find God’s love. 

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